Words and Interview by Siobhan Jones, Photo by Martei Korley—
Busy Signal has been a force to be reckoned with in dancehall ever since his hit “Step Out” was first released in 2005. With a new, all-reggae album backed by live musicians, Reggae Music Again (stream it here) just released on VP Records last moonth and word of a single coming soon with No Doubt and Major Lazer, the nimble lyricist is proving, yet again, just how versatile of an artist he really is. Siobhan Jones of United Reggae and Why Delila caught up with Busy recently to inquire about his development as an artist, how working with reggae compares to deejaying on dancehall riddims, and what family means to him.
LargeUp: How was it doing a reggae album compared to a dancehall album and jumping on riddims?
Busy Signal: I started out doing dancehall, and I still do. But me doing a full reggae album… I think it’s a good thing. I mean, not everybody could do it. This was a great learning experience for me, as a reggae album is harder. I could make ten dancehall albums a day if I wanted to. But a reggae album…I’ve been making this album since last year! I learned a lot in terms of different musical styles. Dancehall stuff is more computerized and digital, but this is my first time doing live stuff.
LU: I suppose it helps you learn a lot about the music…
BS: Yes, you need to be focused when you are doing reggae music. You can’t just sing about any topic. You can’t just jump on a reggae riddim and sing about bling or sing about jewelry or clothes or whatever. It’s not that type of thing. You’ve got to be in that zone. There has to be something substantial within the message… some are conscious, some have social commentary. With dancehall you can do whatever you want. It’s a vibe and you can bop your head and all, but nothing is there in terms of substance. And everything’s just go! You hear the track this week and then next week you’re tired of it. But reggae music now, that’s like the line, you draw the line right there in terms of topics and concepts that you use.
LU: Do you feel like you have grown as an artist since doing a reggae album?
BS: It definitely shows growth. As a matter of fact, a lot of the young generations, they understand some dancehall and pop and hip-hop, but they don’t really understand reggae music. Even people here in Jamaica don’t really understand. Some of the younger generations today don’t know the people who paved the way. They probably would know about Bob Marley but some of them are not going to know about Dennis Brown, some are not going to know about Peter Tosh, some of them are not going to hear about U-Roy or Big Youth…
LU: For your dancehall fans who may start getting into reggae through listening to your new album, who would you recommend they listen to?
BS: Every reggae song! As much as they can listen to! You have a whole bunch of people who have contributed so much to reggae music, maybe not as much as Bob Marley, or a Gregory Isaacs, but they are still there. I listen to Black Uhuru, I listen to Burning Spear… It’s a wide range of things that helped me be who I am today, and guide me in terms of me making this choice in reggae music.
LU: How did your time with the Alliance has shaped who you are musically and who you are personally?
BS: I’m still representing the Alliance, me and Bounty Killer still good. Killer di General! Killer is my deejay who mi look up to. I follow everything he does. I look up to him because I get a lot of different things from him, and I just match it to me and my personality and my performance and everything. I see how he demands the crowd when he’s performing. I see the delivery in terms of when he is performing. I take these things from him. [With] personal things, that’s different, he’s got different personalities in terms of him just being a person outside of artists.
He helped me a lot back in the days when I was just starting out in 2005. He brought me to shows. He helped me so much, to make my own thing, in terms of music, in terms of dancehall.
LU: You’re well known for your fast-chat style. How do you realize you can do something like that? Did you just try it out or was it something that developed for you?
BS: Kind of both! It developed after trying it out, from a younger age before I became a known artist. You have this English deejay, Papa Levi. I remember me and Bounty Killer driving, in Bounty Killer’s vehicle, listening to Papa Levi with that fast flow back in the day, way before my time. He does a little part slow and them him start dealing the fast flow and I was like, “Yo, I wanna do this!” So I started trying it out and I just developed… Every now and then I throw in a little fast flow, or I just do the whole fast flow in terms of the song, or the whole verse. So Papa Levi really inspired me. And Papa San definitely – he was a Jamaican who really represent the thing for us.
LU: You mentioned Papa Levi there. What your understanding is of the Jamaican view of UK dancehall?
BS: The UK a full of style! The UK have more of this Jamaican sum’n in terms of sharing our genre of music. The UK version of dancehall or the UK version of reggae music, or the UK reggae artists or the UK dancehall artists it’s connected. Even artists that are in Europe ah really do, you have artists wah do reggae music, like Alborosie, dem do great stuff. I listen to a wide range of music and artists. So I have to big up Papa Levi and people that paved the way from those times. Cos Papa Levi was the first English artist to be a number one in Jamaica. I grew up with this, I know this stuff, and I can even say it in an interview, I’m proudly saying that – these people paved the way for a likkle yout like me who just start the music in 2005 professionally.
LU: “One More Night” was a Phil Collins cover. Who would you like to cover one of your songs?
BS: Any real artist out there: Lionel Richie, Phil Collins himself. Return the favor! Adele! It would be great just to have people like these who stand out in music. If Coldplay were to cover one of my songs… that would be the ultimate for me! That would be such an achievement.
LU: You produced tracks like Step Out, and Nightshift…. Tell me a little bit about your role as a producer.
BS: Well I know what I want to hear. I have different musicians who do the live tracks and musicians who do the computer stuff. I have this musician I’m working with called Riff Raff—he played keyboards for Stephen Marley. He do good stuff, man. I have this new album coming out called Lyrics Museum, which is like straight dancehall stuff. We have just done the reggae music thing but by August I have this album coming out. And Riff Raff, he made about 11 or 13 of those tracks.
So I start grumbling, I start mumbling, and he just be right there with the keyboard and the drum machine just making stuff. He’s just so quick like that. I play a role in directing and trying out the sounds I want to use. He just be there pressing the drum machine and the keyboard and I’ll be like, “Yo! That’s the sound I want right there!” and he will put his own creative style into it, and we just merge and fuse stuff.
LU: You have obviously been doing a lot of interviews recently through promoting your reggae album. What have you not been asked? Is there anything that you feel has been missed?
BS: (Laughs) I think they have asked me every damn ting! Er… I haven’t been asked if I’m a family person.
LU: So Busy, are you a family person?
BS: I am definitely a family person! Even my team that I work with, it wouldn’t just be business associate, we are family. This is the type of thing that I do in terms of my music. If you check my history you will see that I don’t voice for every producer in Jamaica. I pick and I chose, and it’s got to be like a family. I have a few people I work with and I do productions for my own self. Nothing is going to be special about a person who is everywhere, in everyone’s computer.
I have my immediate family who I love to be around. Sometimes I’m hardly around them… I gotta be on the road. But when I get to be around them – my grandmother, my mother, my brothers, my one sister, my daughters – I like to be around them, the whole love. My tour is coming up and I’m going to be outside of Jamaica for like two, three months… there ain’t nothing like family, real family.